by Eldar Mamedov
When Iran’s then-foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited the European Parliament in 2010, his speech in the foreign affairs committee soon degenerated into a shouting match with the MPs. They accused his government of repressing dissent and grievous human rights abuses in the wake of the “Green” protests in Iran in 2009. The contrast with the visit last week of Mottaki’s successor, Javad Zarif, could not be greater. Although MPs quizzed him on human rights and Iran´s regional policies, the overall tone of the exchange was respectful and civil. This is another testament to the changing atmosphere in EU-Iran relations.
This change is due, in Zarif’s assessment, to the ability of both the EU and Iran to redefine the problems in bilateral relations in ways that facilitate solutions. The nuclear issue is a case in point. Although the objective was always the same—preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon—what made a mutually acceptable solution possible was not an insistence on Iran completely shutting down its nuclear program, but ensuring its peaceful nature. Accordingly, a mutual accommodation through a set of compromises, rather than more sanctions and pressure on Iran, led the parties to reach a deal.
The lesson of this successful nuclear diplomacy is that zero-sum logic does not work. The same realization should be applied to dealing with the multiple crises in the Middle East. This is why throughout his speech Zarif, as he did earlier in the Munich conference on international security, stressed Iran´s willingness to engage with other players, like Saudi Arabia, on the regional challenges of state collapse, sectarianism, and extremism. However, the Saudis dismiss Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani as merely the smiling faces of a brutal regime where so-called hardliners, like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Revolutionary Guards, call the shots. Many in the West share these views.
This represents an incorrect reading of the lessons of the nuclear agreement. What made it possible was not that Zarif and Rouhani somehow “outsmarted” or “defeated” the hardliners, but that the whole “system”—including the ultimate enforcer, the Supreme Leader, at the helm—came to see the deal as being in Iran´s national interest. Indeed, the key figure who steered the deal through parliament was the speaker Ali Larijani. A conventional conservative, Larijani is not associated with the reformists or centrists who are typically believed to form the backbone of the Rouhani administration.
The same logic applies to regional policies. Iran will support any agreement, for instance in Syria, that respects its national interests, such as preventing any potential future Syrian regime from falling into the hands of pro-Saudi forces and preserving a lifeline to Hezbollah. In addition to its ideological commitment to the “Islamic resistance,” Iran sees Hezbollah as insurance against Israeli threats. Zarif and Al-Quds commander Qassem Soleimani, as well as most of the policymaking elite, share a strategic consensus that proxies and allies like Hezbollah are a vital asset against a regional system that Tehran sees as fundamentally designed to exclude it.
But the experience of the nuclear deal also shows that Iran is amenable to negotiations and trade-offs, provided its core interests are respected. That’s why it makes little sense to see Iran´s readiness to abandon Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a litmus test of its willingness to cooperate with the West in the Middle East. Rather, Iran should be nudged to use its influence to convince the Syrian president to drop the use of barrel bombs and ensure humanitarian access to areas under siege by government forces. After all, Iran has complained in the past that its exclusion from the Syria talks was a reason for their failure. Now that it is a part of the International Syria Support Group it has a strong incentive to make them succeed.
The way out of Iran’s predicament could be a new regional security architecture that would accommodate the legitimate interests of all players. This is why Zarif alluded to the “Helsinki model” for the Middle East. Such a model would involve a set of principles and confidence-building measures that reject outside interference and respect the sovereignty of all countries. It would also encourage cooperation on issues of non-proliferation, environment, tourism, people-to-people contacts, and nuclear safety (given that many regional countries are building up their nuclear power).
Such an outlook promises a more realistic way in dealing with the region’s challenges than attempts to exclude any players. By contrast, the Saudi obsession with excluding Iran leads to its treating terrorist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) or al-Qaeda as potential assets against Iran and its Shiite allies. The results of such policies are clearly visible in Yemen: the one party winning the war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels in that impoverished country is al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, one of the most dangerous of al-Qaeda’s outfits in the world. And this is happening in a theater where Riyadh and its allies have strongly overstated Tehran’s links to the Houthi.
Thus, Zarif has cautioned that extremist groups like al-Qaeda and IS should not be used as tools in anyone’s geo-strategic games. Invariably, these organizations cannot be controlled and become a threat to their sponsors. Nowhere does this ring truer than in the case of Saudi Arabia, which rightly claims that IS and al-Qaeda are a mortal threat to the House of Saud and yet conducts policies that are highly beneficial to them.
During this convulsive time in the Middle East, the emergence of Iran as a responsible player is a rare piece of good news. Many differences between the EU and Iran will remain, be it on human rights or the use of the death penalty. It will also take time to rebuild trust after decades of hostility. But Zarif’s message of overcoming the noxious legacy of zero-sum games and redefining the EU-Iran relationship in a new, win-win fashion is definitely worth heeding.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.